December 5, 1960 – The U.S. Supreme Court Decides Boynton v. Virginia

On December 20, 1958, Bruce Boynton, a black senior at Howard Law School, left D.C. for Montgomery, Alabama (in order eventually to reach Selma) to spend the Christmas holidays. He took a Trailways bus, which was operated by Virginia Stage Lines. During a stop at a Trailways bus station in Richmond, Virginia, Boynton went to a restaurant next to the terminal for a meal. The restaurant was segregated and had a separate section for blacks. But that section was crowded, so Boynton sat in the white section. The waitress would not serve him, and called the assistant manager, who “instructed” Boynton to move. When he refused, a police officer arrived to arrest him. Handcuffed and hauled off on a misdemeanor trespass charge, he spent the night in jail.

Boynton was charged with trespass based on § 18-225 of the Code of Virginia of 1950, as amended (1958), making it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to thirty days in jail and a $100 fine, “without authority of law… [to] remain upon the lands or premises of another after having been forbidden to do so by the … lessee, custodian, or person lawfully in charge of such land….. “

The case came up for trial on January 6, 1959, before a judge of the Richmond Police Court, who found Boynton guilty.

Boynton was not only a law student but came from a family of civil rights activists: his parents, Sam and Amelia Boynton, devoted themselves to obtaining voting rights for all Americans.

Boynton appealed on the grounds that his conviction infringed his rights under the Interstate Commerce Act, the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, and the Fourteenth Amendment. The appeals court, however, upheld the lower court’s verdict and sentence. The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals refused a writ of error to review the action of the appeals Court, “being of opinion that the said judgment is plainly right…. “

Thurgood Marshall in 1957

Thurgood Marshall in 1957

On September 15, 1959, Boynton filed a petition for certiorari in the United States Supreme Court. His lead lawyer was Thurgood Marshall, who one day would become the first black associate justice on the nation’s highest court. The Court, in the opinion Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 454 (1960) written by Justice Hugo Black, stated that:

The basic question presented in this case is whether an interstate bus passenger is denied a federal statutory or constitutional right when a restaurant in a bus terminal used by the carrier along its route discriminates in serving food to the passenger solely because of his color.”

The Court maintained that “[n]otwithstanding the fact that the petition for certiorari presented only the constitutional questions this Court will consider the statutory issue, which involves essentially the same problem — racial discrimination in interstate commerce.”

This was an interesting approach since there was a legitimate question about the relationship between the restaurant and the bus terminal, and “the evidence on this record does not show that the bus company owns or actively operates or directly controls the bus terminal or the restaurant in it.”

Justice Hugo Black

Justice Hugo Black

In the majority’s view, the lack of evidence of control was immaterial:

“. . . the fact that § 203(a)(19) says that the protections of the motor carrier provisions of the Act extend to “include” facilities so operated or controlled by no means should be interpreted to exempt motor carriers from their statutory duty under § 216(d) not to discriminate should they choose to provide their interstate passengers with services that are an integral part of transportation through the use of facilities they neither own, control nor operate. The protections afforded by the Act against discriminatory transportation services are not so narrowly limited. . . . And so here, without regard to contracts, if the bus carrier has volunteered to make terminal and restaurant facilities and services available to its interstate passengers as a regular part of their transportation, and the terminal and restaurant have acquiesced and cooperated in this undertaking, the terminal and restaurant must perform these services without discriminations prohibited by the Act. In the performance of these services under such conditions, the terminal and restaurant stand in the place of the bus company in the performance of its transportation obligations. . . . Although the courts below made no findings of fact, we think the evidence in this case shows such a relationship and situation here.”

Rather, the Court argued, Virginia’s law contravened federal law, holding:

Under § 216(d) of the Interstate Commerce Act, which forbids any interstate common carrier by motor vehicle to subject any person to unjust discrimination, petitioner had a federal right to remain in the white portion of the restaurant, he was therefore ‘under authority of law,’ and it was error to affirm his conviction.”

Thus the Supreme Court reversed the decision of lower courts by a vote of 7-2. Justices Charles Evans Whittaker and Tom Campbell Clark joined in a dissent.

Boynton’s father Sam died in 1963, having lived long enough to see his son’s Richmond court challenge succeed. Amelia continued to work for civil rights, becoming a national celebrity. She was a key figure in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches and was awarded the Martin Luther King, Jr., Freedom Medal in 1990.

Aug. 18, 2011 photo of Bruce Boynton and his mother, civil rights icon Amelia Boynton on her 100th birthday

Aug. 18, 2011 photo of Bruce Boynton and his mother, civil rights icon Amelia Boynton on her 100th birthday

When Amelia Boynton died at the age of 110, First lady Michelle Obama sent her family a letter of condolence shortly after her passing, describing the legendary civil rights leader as “one of the quiet heroes who made America what it is today.” So was her son.

November 21, 1945 – Justice Robert H. Jackson Delivers Opening Statement at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials

On this day in history, Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson, serving as Chief U.S. Prosecutor for the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at the request of President Harry S. Truman, delivered his opening statement to the court.

Justice Jackson delivering the opening statement to the IMT on November 21, 1946  Credit: U.S. Army  Signal Corps

Justice Jackson delivering the opening statement to the IMT on November 21, 1946
Credit: U.S. Army Signal Corps

The purpose of the IMT was to try twenty-three of the most important political and military leaders of the Third Reich following the end of World War II.

As explained on the website of The Robert H. Jackson Center, in his opening statement, Justice Jackson sought to characterize the meaning of the trial as well as the importance of extinguishing what helped foster the creation of the Nazis.

He began:

May it please Your Honors: The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.”

You can watch to his address here:

November 19, 1877 – The U.S. Supreme Court Decides Beecher v. Wetherby

In Beecher v. Wetherby, 95 U.S. 517 (24 L.Ed. 440, 1877), the Court revealed its notions of ethnocentrism and racism in a decision written by Associate Justice Stephen J. Field.

The Court was ruling on a matter (an action of replevin) related to claims of land title in Wisconsin contested by Native tribes. Justice Field first acknowledges:

It is true that, for many years before Wisconsin became a State, that tribe occupied various portions of her territory, and roamed over nearly the whole of it.”

But alas, he continued, “… the right which the Indians held was only that of occupancy. The fee was in the United States, subject to that right, and could be transferred by them whenever they chose.”

However, he stated:

It is to be presumed that in this matter the United States would be governed by such considerations of justice as would control a Christian people in their treatment of an ignorant and dependent race.”

Furthermore, “the right which the Indians held was only that of occupancy” and their rights to retain possession would be respected only as long as the government decided it would be:

Congress undoubtedly expected that at no distant day the State would be settled by white people, and the semi-barbarous condition of the Indian tribes would give place to the higher civilization of our race . . . “

Justice Field was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, supposedly to achieve both regional balance (he was a Westerner) and political balance (he was a Democrat, albeit a Unionist one).

Justice Stephen Johnson Field, in office March 10, 1863 - December 1, 1897

Justice Stephen Johnson Field, in office March 10, 1863 – December 1, 1897

Unfortunately Justice Field often makes lists of “top five worst Supreme Court Justices.” He is particularly known for his racism. He dissented in the 1880 landmark case Strauder v. West Virginia, in which the majority opinion held that a state law barring blacks from jury service violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He joined the infamous case Plessy v. Ferguson that found a state law is within constitutional boundaries imposing racial segregation, basing the decision on the “separate-but-equal” doctrine. He also expressed racist anti-Chinese-American rhetoric (continuing a pattern he began in California courts), most notably in his majority opinion in the Chinese Exclusion Case, Chae Chan Ping v. United States, and in his dissent in Chew Heong v. United States.

The Earl of Dunmore Issues America’s First Emancipation Proclamation on November 7, 1775

On this day in history, John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore and Royal Governor of Colonial Virginia, promised freedom to “all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others…” who belonged to the patriots if they enlisted in the army on the British side against the American revolutionaries. You can read the text of his proclamation here. Many slaves leaped at the offer.

John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, originally from Scotland, was the royal governor of the Colony of Virginia from 1771 to 1775

John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, originally from Scotland, was the royal governor of the Colony of Virginia from 1771 to 1775

When the War of Independence was over, George Washington met with the British Commander, Sir Guy Carleton, and asked about getting the slaves back (including some of his own who had run off during the war), as per the terms of the peace treaty. Carleton countered that in his interpretation, the term “property” meant property owned by Americans at the time the treaty was signed, so did not include those who had responded to British proclamations years before. Moreover, the British would not violate the faith of the blacks by delivering them up to their former masters after they had fought for them.

Thus, when the British ships left New York Harbor in 1783, they not only carried tens of thousands of white loyalists, but over 3,000 blacks (1,136 men, 914 women, and 750 children). The blacks ended up in Nova Scotia, England, and Sierra Leone.


November 5, 1855 – Birth of Eugene V. Debs

Eugene Victor “Gene” Debs, born on this day in history in Terre Haute, Indiana, was an American socialist who ran five times for President of the United States, the last time from a prison cell.

Debs started working on railroads at age 14, and eventually founded the American Railway Union (ARU), leading it in the Pullman Strike of 1894. President Grover Cleveland used the United States Army to break the strike. As a leader of the ARU, Debs was convicted of federal charges for defying a court injunction against the strike and served six months in prison.

Historian Lawrence Wittner reports:

As Debs brooded on these events, he concluded that, although industry-wide unions were vital, they could not win their battles for economic and social justice while giant corporations dominated the government. In Europe, workers were forming labor and socialist parties. Why not in America? At the beginning of 1897, in an open letter to the remnants of the American Railway Union, he wrote: ‘I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough.’”

Debs emerged from jail committed to socialism, and was a founding member of the Social Democracy of America (1897), the Social Democratic Party of America (1898), and the Socialist Party of America (1901).

Eugene V. Debs in 1897

Eugene V. Debs in 1897

Debs ran as a Socialist candidate for President of the United States in 1900 (earning 0.63% of the popular vote), 1904 (2.98%), 1908 (2.83%), 1912 (5.99%), and 1920 (3.41%). A charismatic speaker, Debs drew many to the Socialist Party. At its peak in 1912, Socialists held 1,200 public offices in 340 American cities, including 79 mayors in 24 states.

Campaign poster from his 1912 Presidential campaign, featuring Debs and Vice Presidential candidate Emil Seidel

Campaign poster from his 1912 Presidential campaign, featuring Debs and Vice Presidential candidate Emil Seidel

But with the declaration of war in April 1917, the fortunes of the party changed. The Socialists had declared their “unalterable opposition to the war” and Congress responded by passing the Espionage Act of 1917 to prosecute Socialist Party leaders. The Act was intended to prohibit interference with military operations or recruitment, to prevent insubordination in the military, and to prevent the support of U.S. enemies during wartime.

As Wittner recounts, the federal government began prosecuting Socialist Party leaders, and the postmaster general banned virtually every Socialist newspaper, magazine, or other publication from the mails. Socialist Party headquarters around the nation were raided, their records seized, and their officers tried and imprisoned.

1918 Canton, Ohio Rally

1918 Canton, Ohio Rally

Debs was outraged, and on June 16, 1918 in Canton, Ohio, he delivered a famous speech in which he pointed out that “[w]ars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder.” Even worse, “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.”

Less than two weeks later, Debs was indicted by a federal grand jury for violating the Espionage Act, and sentenced to ten years in prison.

On December 23, 1921, President Warren G. Harding commuted Debs’ sentence to time served, effective Christmas Day. He did not issue a pardon.

Debs leaving the federal penitentiary in Atlanta on Christmas Day 1921, following commutation of his sentence

Debs leaving the federal penitentiary in Atlanta on Christmas Day 1921, following commutation of his sentence

When Debs was released from the Atlanta Penitentiary, the other prisoners sent him off with “a roar of cheers” and a crowd of 50,000 greeted his return to Terre Haute to the accompaniment of band music.

Debs spent his remaining years trying to recover his health which was severely undermined by prison confinement. In late 1926, he died there of heart failure at the age of 70.

You can watch a video of Mark Ruffalo delivering an excerpt of Debs’ speech of June 16, 1918 here:

November 2, 1983 – Legislation Approved Making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day an American Federal Holiday

On this day in history, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill authorizing a federal holiday on the third Monday of January every year, close to the time of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. which was on January 15.

The campaign for a federal holiday in King’s honor began on April 8, 1968, just four days after King’s assassination, when Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) first introduced a bill to establish January 15th, the slain leader’s birthday, as a Federal holiday. Conyers introduced the bill year after year, Congress after Congress, gathering cosponsors along the way. But it wasn’t until 1979 that the measure even came to a vote in the House.

Congressman John Conyers, Jr.

Congressman John Conyers, Jr.

In the Senate, Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), the only African-American senator, also began introducing legislation in 1968 authorizing the President to issue a proclamation each year designating January 15 as “Martin Luther King Day” (a national day of commemoration, but not a Federal legal holiday). In subsequent congresses bills were introduced repeatedly, but never made progress.

Having entered the House of Representatives in 1965, Mr. Conyers is the second most senior member in the House of Representatives.

Having entered the House of Representatives in 1965, Mr. Conyers is the second most senior member in the House of Representatives.

For the 15th anniversary of King’s death, lobbying for the bill intensified. In 1982 Coretta Scott King and Stevie Wonder presented a petition to Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) containing the signatures of six million citizens in support of the King holiday.

On August 27, 1983, the Martin Luther King, Jr. King Center convened the “20th Anniversary March on Washington,” supported by more than 750 organizations. More than 500,000 people attend the March at the Lincoln Memorial, and all of the speakers called on the U.S. Senate and President Reagan to pass the King Holiday.

Congressional Black Caucus member and freshman Representative Katie B. Hall (D-IN), chairman of the subcommittee that had primary jurisdiction over the MLK Holiday Bill, introduced the Dr. King Holiday Bill that later became Public Law 98-399. The House of Representatives passed the bill on August 2, 1983 by a vote of 338-90.

Indiana Representative Katie B. Hall

Indiana Representative Katie B. Hall

Passage of the bill on the Senate side encountered strong opposition from Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), who unleashed a vicious attack on the character of Dr. King, labeling him a Communist. Senator Helms had copies of FBI reports on King delivered to all senators, and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) took to the floor of the Senate and stomped the documents, labeling them a “packet of filth.” On October 19, 1983, the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 78-22. As enacted, H.R. 3706 is Public Law 98-144, which you can read here.

On November 3, 1983, President Reagan signed the bill into law and it was first observed three years later. In his remarks on the signing of the bill, he noted:

. . . traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. And I just have to believe that all of us—if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King’s dream comes true, and in his words, ‘All of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘… land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’’

. . .

All right-thinking people, all right-thinking Americans are joined in spirit with us this day as the highest recognition which this nation gives is bestowed upon Martin Luther King, Jr., one who also was the recipient of the highest recognition which the world bestows, the Nobel Peace Prize.”

You can read his entire speech here.

President Ronald Reagan signs legislation to create a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Rose Garden of the White House on November 2, 1983. (by National Archives)

President Ronald Reagan signs legislation to create a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Rose Garden of the White House on November 2, 1983. (by National Archives)

Some states resisted observing the holiday as such, giving it alternative names or combining it with other holidays. It was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000. The last states to join up where Arizona in 1992, New Hampshire in 1999, and Utah in 2000. 

There are only two other people in American history that have a national holiday in their honor, George Washington and Christopher Columbus.  Martin Luther King Jr. is the only native born United States citizen to have a national holiday in his honor. (Although Washington was born in Virginia, Virginia was still at that time a British colony, and the United States did not yet exist.)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

October 29, 1940 – First Peacetime Draftees Selected From a Glass Bowl

On September 16, 1940, the Burke-Wadsworth Act was passed by Congress. More formally known as The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, Pub.L. 76–783, 54 Stat. 885, the law authorized the first peacetime conscription in United States history. This Selective Service Act required that men between the ages of 21 and 35 register with local draft boards.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Selective Service Training Act

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Selective Service Training Act

One month after the passage of the act, on this day in history, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson began drawing draft numbers out of a glass bowl. The numbers were handed to President Franklin Roosevelt, who read them aloud in a public announcement.

Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson drawing draft numbers out of a glass bowl

Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson drawing draft numbers out of a glass bowl

Later, when the U.S. entered World War II, the draft ages expanded at both ends of the age range. The terminal point of service was extended to six months after the war. From 1940 until 1947 — when the wartime selective service act expired after extensions by Congress, approximately 34 million men had registered, and over 10,000,000 men were inducted.

At first, blacks were passed over for the draft because of racist assumptions about their abilities and the viability of a mixed-race military. But more men were invariably required, and in 1943, a “quota” was imposed for recruitment of blacks, to be approximately equivalent to their percentage of the population as a whole. Initially, blacks were restricted to “labor units,” but this too ended as the war progressed, when they were finally used in combat.